SEMINOLE — It was nothing like the Habitat for Humanity homes they had helped to build back home in Pinellas County. The two-story quadruplex in the small city of Moinesti, Romania, required them to venture up scaffolding.
It was Betty Oldanie’s first overseas build for Habitat. For her husband, Chuck, it was his 11th. The Madeira Beach Realtor has helped to build Habitat homes in India, Belize and Mexico. Here in the United States, he volunteered on the first Pinellas Habitat home in 1987 and worked in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, to help build new homes and rehab others in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Oldanie, 78, has a simple answer when asked why he devotes time and money to build homes for the poor. “It’s selfish, I guess, but it’s that feeling you get. We’re all wired to do this and when you do it, you get the feeling of hey, I’ve done something for somebody,” he said.
“You can't do it forever, so you do it while you can,” said Betty Oldanie, 78, who has done most of her Habitat volunteering in Pinellas as a former chair and current member of the committee that selects prospective Habitat homeowners. She also volunteers on building sites.
The Oldanies had just moved from Michigan in 1986, when Chuck Oldanie became involved with Habitat. “I read in the newspapers that Habitat was looking for volunteers, so I got ahold of them,” he said. “In 2000, they were looking for people to go down to Belize and do a build down there. Then we went to Mexico and did a build in a little town called Garma. ... The last two years in India, we built two houses and painted two houses in one day.”
Oldanie’s involvement with Habitat for Humanity is closely linked to his longtime membership in the Seminole Lake Rotary Club. In March, he and Sallie Parks, a former Pinellas County Commissioner and a member of the Dunedin Rotary Club, will travel to India for another build. Rotary International collaborates with Habitat to build homes around the world.
In India, Oldanie has also worked on joint efforts with Habitat and Seeds of Peace, an international organization whose goal it says is to equip young people with “skills and relationships they need to accelerate social, economic, and political changes essential for peace.” In India, it is an interfaith effort involving Hindus, Muslims and Christians, he said.
The houses are about 900 square feet and “pretty basic,” Oldanie said. “They brick it up and have a kitchen and then a living area. They usually have an upstairs, and that’s where they sleep. A community bathroom is outside.”
There is only one water source, which Oldanie said is shared by the 20 or so homes.
About five years ago, the Oldanies joined Friendship Force International, a cultural organization “focused on promoting understanding, cultural education and citizen diplomacy through homestay journeys and personal friendships.” They shared their enthusiasm for Habitat with the Florida Suncoast group and worked to organize the first collaboration between Friendship Force International and Habitat. Last year, that effort took them to Romania at the end of August.
Pinellas County residents Geri Espy, Christine Michalek, Judy Ormsby, Karen Sheretts, and Marilyn Whelan joined the Oldanies for the trip, which also included Friendship Force members from Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, South Florida, Texas and Switzerland. Chuck Oldanie was the only male in the 13-member group of volunteers, aged 62 to 82.
At the end of their trip, they were presented with certificates of appreciation by Moinesti Mayor Valentin Vieru and local Habitat volunteer coordinator Victor Teris.
Work on the two-story building continued after they left, but stopped on Oct. 26, Betty Oldanie said. The local Habitat is trying to raise donations for the roof, she said, and work is not expected to begin again until March.
The Oldanies are part of a family of Habitat volunteers. Betty Oldanie’s brother, Bill Lifsey, 80, a retired airline pilot, and his wife, Jane, travel around the country and other parts of the world to build homes. The couple, who live in North Carolina, recently traveled to Tampa for a Habitat build.
Chuck Oldanie, who said he is often asked why his work for Habitat is focused overseas, explained that the local Habitat has more resources than similar organizations in poorer countries.
“Plus, you want to interact with people of other cultures,” said his wife, who retired five years ago as a vice president for Suncoast Hospice.
Locally, Habitat is able to hire contractors to perform complex work and attract more volunteers, she said. According to its 2018-2019 report, Habitat for Humanity of Pinellas and Pasco Counties raised funds to build 61 international homes. Habitat International’s website explains that “homeowners pay an affordable mortgage, receive financial education and help build their homes alongside volunteers.”
His volunteer work is about building relationships, Chuck Oldanie said. “Hopefully, we think that we have been peacemakers of sorts too," he added.
"It’s the value of a stable family unit that gathers in a place that they can call home and feel safe and secure there,” Betty Oldanie said. “It has the opportunity to alter the course in their lives.”